Death elicits a strange reaction in us. We find a state of reverence for some, a state we wouldn’t have imagined while they walked with us, made us smile, or saved us from our own bottomless abyss. We also forget about them as time flies. And then there are few who have been responsible for what we are today, people who’ve shaped our tastes, our understanding of life and these are people we tend to worship and celebrate while living and their death brings dirges, poems and long tributes from every quarter. For some, we weep. For Robin Williams, I wept.
I was 9 years old when I first came across Robin Williams. I’d watched Kamal Haasan play a “woman” in Avvai Shanmugi, a remake of the Robin Williams starrer Mrs. Doubtfire and my father had a large hand at what kind of movies I watched as a child. Star Movies, the best service for English movies in India on cable in the late 90’s was not something I’d be allowed to watch whenever I wanted. The guide would be studied in detail by my parents and if they approved, I’d be allowed to watch a movie. Mrs. Doubtfire happened after hours of research and by the time I sat down to watch the movie I already knew that my hero Kamal Haasan had remade the film. We didn’t use the term remake, we said copied, it was easier. Like a lot of things in the world, we didn’t understand the difference. It was a movie I enjoyed watching but I never really registered the genius of Robin Williams there. I kept telling myself that my hero was better; he’d done better than this square jawed white man. What I hadn’t known back then was that this very square jawed man had voiced Aladdin’s genie, a character that would be discussed during recess in school, picnics and sleepovers. For the best part of my childhood, I didn’t know who had given life to that blue coloured chap whose every sound was a surfeit joy machine.
It was when I was 13 that I really got a glimpse of the genius that would affect me so much that I would sit and write this note. Around that time, I was having a tough time being at school. This was the time when I was certain that I didn’t belong in class, solving algebra or staring at a uterus in the book. I was starting to have opinions that weren’t what my parents advocated or what my school taught me. It was teenage rebellion, not the wasteland that The Who sing about. I was caught up in my own self-importance in this little world and the movies wanted to show me its magic, yet again. Dead Poets Society. Seeing a teacher have his kids stand on the bench and speak their mind, asking them to subvert authority and challenge established methods, I was inspired and more convinced that I was right to feel claustrophobic in the traditional classroom. This man, with sparkling eyes and a smile plastered on his face, conveying knowledge as if it was all brewing under his nose; Robin Williams became my captain. Oh Captain, My Captain! I started reading poetry because of the captain. The movie would matter little with the passage of time but the man who became my captain, marking his presence on one tumultuous adolescent night, ended up becoming a man I’d come to love and draw my life source from.
There was a time in my life when getting up and facing the day was an increasingly torturous activity. I spent 4 years caged, captive of nervous breakdowns. Very few things could go beyond the wall of sadness and reach out to me and tell something meaningful. Bob Dylan, cinema, Yasunarai Kawabata, the blues and Robin Williams; they had a power which others didn’t. With Robin Williams, it wasn’t the movies that moved me to a state of reverence; it was something that he was known for even more widely across the world. It was stand-up, a world he changed. I used to spend a whole month at home and this was a period when I could acquire a catalog of things that would keep me going for the next 6 months. It was sometime in 2010 that I got my hands on Robin Williams’ Weapons Of Self Destruction. My captain became my savior.
For me, the essence of his comedy came through in that one performance in DC. He moved around, changed his voice and had audience in splits and every time you saw his eyes, you knew he was doing it for you, it was personal. I was never much into checking out stand-up comedy back then and it was my first big one outside of George Carlin, Woody Allen, Jim Carrey and Richard Pryor. Like a wandering nomad’s quest for home, Robin Williams’ comedy was a dying man’s lifeline. Even now, I am far behind some of my friends when it comes to watching stand-up but when it came to Robin Williams, I dug everything I could. On YouTube, one can find his 1986 show “Live at the Mets”. It is the maddest hour of comedy there is. It is pure, full of passion and Robin Williams at his rousing best. It used to be my medicine, more powerful than the ones I had to ward off the bleakness that would take over me. There was a lifetime of happiness wrapped in those few minutes he got on stage, taking in his surroundings, making wild gestures, changing his voice and being a jolly good man. It was inevitable that one would fall in love with that infectiousness. He was a disease, a disease called happiness. Sadly, we never fully understood him.
For a comic of almost unparalleled genius, one could argue that his best roles were not the ones where he was showing off his comedic talent, barring the brilliant Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam and the eponymous Popeye. His best roles came when the characters were sad, in distress and were close to his inner depressed self. Be it as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting telling us that we were not at fault or as the harrowing Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad or the single teacher, John Keating giving his students Walt Whitman and asking them to seize the day in Dead Poets Society, it has been as men in solitude that his best performances have come. And we can only think that it is a man of solitude that he found himself, so depressed the state of mind that he couldn’t find the joy he gave others.
If one were to type Robin Williams on Google and search now, some would talk about how depressed he was and how people missed it and most would talk about the stand-up comedy and the opportunities he gave others. For me and many others he was the man who dressed up as a Russian doctor and made his best friend Christopher Reeve see reason to live. For me, he was the wind beneath the wings, the guide and captain of a wandering soul.